It was a special weekend for 104 young golfers and their families as they descended on Orlando for The Golf Channel-hosted Juniors Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, sponsored by Mutual of Omaha.

But that’s just a small part of the effort that has become the largest junior golf program in the world. For the past eight years, The Golf Channel has annually traversed the country, offering kids their first touch of golf, and making local cable operators look good in the bargain. And it is a bargain; all the events are free. The past few years The Golf Channel’s caravan has made 100 stops, putting golf in the hands of some 10,000 kids yearly. Nearly 80,000 youngsters have participated since the program began.

Admittedly, the youngsters you’ll see competing at the Championship (televised each Thanksgiving Day on The Golf Channel, this year it’s at 12:30pm ET) are usually those whose parents have them emulating Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie, putting small clubs in their hands before potty training is completed. At age 7 some of these kids are belting the ball right down the middle, 150 yards on the fly.

That’s wonderful, but what’s better is that at every local event all the kids are winners; each gets encouragement, educational materials, pointers and gifts. And the kids are a cross-section of America, some come from affluent homes, others are inner city poor. We’ve attended events on both sides of the tracks; The Golf Channel conducts them exactly the same. Sure, the kids get a brief feel for golf, but more important good sportsmanship and fun are drilled into them.

The program’s co-founders—Golf Channel’s director of marketing Steve Sellery and TGC president Dave Manougian—insist on that. To Steve and Dave’s credit the program that began modestly in 1998 by a modest Golf Channel has ballooned to its present size without losing a bit of the focus that makes it one of cable’s best public affairs efforts.

We said at the top it was a special weekend for 104 young golfers. It was a particularly special (and poignant) weekend for Steve, who’s leaving "his baby" for a new job in Austin, Texas. But the former school teacher won’t stay away from educating kids too long. "Once my children are finished with college it’s my hope to get back into education," he told us Friday. We know this excellent golf program just won’t be the same without Steve. But here’s hoping it will be exactly the same.   

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